ASU grad named lead of Corporate Responsibility Team at Verizon Foundation

April 28, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University graduate Nick Matula has been recently named lead of the Corporate Responsibility Team at the Verizon Foundation. Nick Matula headshot Nick Matula Download Full Image

Matula has graduated with a social and cultural pedagogy master's degree at the School of Social Transformation.

"This master's degree prepares individuals as changemakers within a variety of fields, including education, nonprofits and culturally responsive organizations," Matula said. "What makes this program unique is the ability for students to curate their own learning experience by leveraging opportunities to take courses from a robust range of schools and degree tracks. As a student in the (social and cultural pedagogy) program, I was able to take courses from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the College of Sustainability, to name a few. Not many programs allow a student to cater their educational experience based on their own needs and interests." 

"Nick used his high school teaching and academic research experience to develop an innovative app that will eventually provide high school students with new civic engagement opportunities,” said Gregory Broberg, project committee member and lecturer in the School of Social Transformation.

Question: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: My “aha” moment came when I was working as an educator at a Title 1 school in New York City. My high school was selected to engage in a participatory budgeting experience, in which students were asked to use public funding to identify and address hardships that they experienced on a daily basis. This experience was not only meaningful for the youth that I was working with on a daily basis, but inspired me to learn about alternative opportunities for access, particularly as it pertains to adolescents. Knowledge, education and meaningful skills are not always learned in the context of a classroom but can be gained through nontraditional means as well; this is what led me to the master’s degree in social and cultural pedagogy. 

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

A: In honor of the late Biggie Smalls, "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves." 

ASU, and particularly the School of Social Transformation, emphasized the need to promote aspects of self-determination, especially when working with at-risk youth and other marginalized populations. Far too frequently do researchers and social scientists go into a community in order to create systematic change without considering the lens or perspective of the communities that they are trying to serve. ASU has taught me to provide individuals within marginalized communities with the tools, knowledge and skills necessary for them to make meaningful changes that are reflective of their specific needs unique to the community in which they live. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU has the first program in the United States providing a degree in social and cultural pedagogy, so it was a natural choice from that perspective. But another reason came down to the far reach and visibility of ASU across the United States. Even as a public school teacher in New York, I was aware of the impact and scale of work that ASU does across the country. It was the potential network of connection and support that had encouraged me to join the ASU family.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Several professors had an impact on me for a variety of reasons, so it is difficult to pin down one individual. The first I would like to shout out is Gregory Broberg, who encouraged me to take risks when it came to my research and professional goals and to think outside the box when presenting ideas. He also instilled that education is meant to serve the needs of the individual and that individual is not meant to serve the needs of an institution. The second professor, Daniel Schugurensky, encouraged me to think about systems of transformation. Sometimes change is intended to be in opposition to current systems that exist within the United States, and sometimes change must work collaboratively within current systems and structures that exist. The final professor that encouraged me was Melanie Bertrand from the Teachers College, who taught me that we should trust adolescents. As educators, it is our responsibility to provide them with the tools and skillsets for progress.

Q: What's the best piece of advice you'd give to those still in school?

A: Keep going! I know at times things can be stressful. Late nights and early mornings. But do not lose sight of the end goal, and never forget that your education is not only personally transformative but will enable you to hopefully transform the experience of those who may not be fortunate enough to be in the position that you are in. Education is not a given and should be viewed as a privilege. Do not let that opportunity go by the wayside. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I love ASU Gammage! I was able to see "Hamilton" there, a once in a lifetime experience and I was not disappointed! This site, being one of Frank Lloyd Wright's final accomplishments, is a testament to Southwestern architecture and provides ASU with so much character, which many students can lose sight of considering the mass expansion and modernization of the campus on an annual basis. The second location that I genuinely enjoy is Hub 249, at the Arizona Chandler Innovation Center. I was able to learn about so many new and emerging technologies such as 3D printing. If anyone is looking to gain a new skill or just have fun playing with fancy technology, this is the place for you. 

Q: You recently accepted a job at the Verizon Foundation as the lead of the Corporate Responsibility Team. What was your primary motivation to apply for this position?

A: Scale and impact. Many of us dream to create critical change that is meaningful and can impact a broad audience. The Verizon Foundation is an organization with a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure that will allow for the scalability of programs that are critical for supporting marginalized populations. The Verizon Foundation can leverage a network of support to help create systems that reinforce mechanism essential for social, political and environmental progress such as, digital inclusion, climate protection and human prosperity in order disrupt traditional systems which in many ways fails in providing individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary for progress and success. 

Q: How did the School of Social Transformation help you prepare for success in this position? 

A: The School of Social Transformation prepared me for the position by instilling the belief that I am not a servant of a mega-corporation, but a servant of the populations in which it serves. I was provided with the opportunity to leverage an abundance of resources, and (the school) has taught me to emphasize a vision of inclusion in which all individuals, regardless of gender, race, identity, creed, etc. are part of decision-making processes.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: In today's day and age, $40 million does not even seem like it's that much money considering many public corporations such as Amazon rake in revenues exceeding trillions of dollars. But if I were to acquire $40 million somehow, I would hope to create a community fund, and allow youth and marginalized populations to determine how the funds are spent. 

Enrique Martin Palacios

Communications specialist , School of International Letters and Cultures


From ASU Dean's Medalist to Harvard Law School

The School of Social Transformation recognized Mackenzie Saunders with The College’s Dean’s Medal

April 15, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

In May, Mackenzie Saunders, an Ahwatukee native, will graduate summa cum laude with Bachelor of Science degrees in justice studies and politics and the economy and a certificate in socio-legal studies. A graduate of nearby Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills, Saunders has been a Barrett, The Honors College student and earned a 4.0 GPA while at ASU, among numerous other achievements. In addition, she has been very active with campus residence life and has increasingly taken on leadership positions in political advocacy and nonprofit organizations. SST Dean's Medalist Mackenzie Saunders School of Social Transformation Dean's Medalist Mackenzie Saunders Download Full Image

Gregory Broberg, a lecturer in the School of Social Transformation, remembers Saunders' academic work as her fifth grade elementary school teacher. "Mackenzie’s commitment to her education has always been evident," he said. "Watching her academic growth has been an honor and I know that this will continue as she moves to Harvard Law School."

Saunders has been accepted to Harvard Law School (incoming class of fall 2022) and after earning her law degree, she aspires to work in the area of disability rights law to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act and to eventually become a federal judge. In the meantime, she will continue her work as a deputy campaign manager for the November 2020 and March 2021 elections for Phoenix City Council and as director of operations for a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for disability rights and provides resources to people with paralysis nationwide. 

Mackenzie’s honors thesis, “Improving Physical Accessibility at Arizona State University: A Student Perspective,” draws inspiration from her own experience as a walking paraplegic following a spinal cord injury sustained during a soccer game when she was 11 years old.

“For her honors project, Mackenzie conducted an extensive inventory of nearly all buildings on the Tempe campus to identify physical accessibility issues — a painstaking process, given the blistering summer heat and her reliance on disability transportation to get from building to building," said Annamaria Oliverio, Mackenzie’s honors thesis adviser. "But Mackenzie’s drive and determination are only matched by her energy and contagious joy. Her goal was to create a thesis that not only contributed to a nascent academic body of knowledge in disability studies but also advocated for all students. As a disabled student, her perspective is certainly unique, though her results benefit the entire university community. It’s a document other university campuses also can adopt. Mackenzie has been coordinating her efforts with the Disability Resource Center and Facilities Management Office, who have already begun to use her thesis work to improve accessibility over campus."

In many respects, Saunders' thesis embodies the School of Social Transformation's commitment to social innovation and to fostering a more inclusive and just society. “Mackenzie is a pathbreaker who rises above the small-mindedness of individuals and the restrictions of society. She elegantly transforms challenges into opportunities, not just for herself, but also others,” said Oliverio.

We met with Saunders (virtually) to ask a few more questions about her experience at ASU and to learn more about her future plans:

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I was actually in the business school for the first two years of my undergraduate career. Business school definitely helped me realize that I belonged elsewhere. I didn't find the work I was doing to be fulfilling; I wasn't excited about the work I was doing. The moment that really made me realize I had to change majors happened over the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I looked at my class schedule for the fall semester of my junior year, and I felt a feeling of dread. I love school, and I love learning, yet I was dreading school to start. That really flipped a switch for me; I told myself that I needed to make a big change and find a field of study that made me excited and motivated. I looked through all of the majors ASU offered — yes, all of them — and I landed on justice studies. I love helping people, I love social justice, and I love immersing myself in the worlds of others to gain valuable perspectives that I don't currently have. Justice studies excited me, and it was exactly what I needed to make the rest of my undergraduate experience enthralling and rewarding.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Some of the most incredible people in the world go to state schools. Sure, private and Ivy League schools get a lot of praise, but I think the real magic happens at state schools like ASU. I've been lucky to meet people of all walks of life here at ASU: first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, veterans, nontraditional students, students who transferred from local community colleges. ASU is so incredibly and beautifully diverse, and ASU awards all students with the opportunity to succeed to their fullest potential. This has led me to curb my former thinking of "the more exclusive the school, the better it is" because that's totally false! It's not whom you exclude that makes you better; it's whom you include and how you enable them to succeed. That's how you measure greatness: through inclusion. ASU does a brilliant job of awarding a huge and diverse group of people with the opportunities to succeed and thrive.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was born and raised in Arizona, about 10 miles south of the ASU Tempe campus. I chose ASU because I would be closest to my family: my entire family lives here, and they're my best friends. Also, because I'm a first-generation college student, we didn't really have the finances to send me out of state for undergrad. But ASU didn't just draw me in because of its proximity to my family or its in-state tuition; ASU really drew me in with Barrett, The Honors College. The thought of having a small, tight-knit community of driven individuals like myself at ASU — the largest university in the nation — sounded like a dream. And it really was. My Barrett experience shaped my entire undergraduate career, and I can't imagine where I'd be if I didn't choose ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Annamaria Oliverio was my Disability and Justice professor, and she was also my thesis director. As my thesis director, she helped me immensely by telling me to slow down, narrow my project's scope, and remind myself that I can't do everything on my own. Dr. Oliverio taught me how to reach my high standards for myself, all while not stressing myself out too much. I'm the queen of stressing myself out and beating myself up for things I do wrong; Dr. Oliverio, on the other hand, was always the person to remind me that I could be my best, and still take care of myself along the way.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Build relationships with your professors! Ask them questions about their past research! Go to their office hours! ASU professors are some of the most brilliant people out there, and we as students are so lucky to have them here for guidance and insight. Some of my favorite people in the world are professors here at ASU. I'm convinced that me getting into Harvard Law School was because of the sheer amount of help I received from multiple ASU professors during my admissions process. Don't forget that your professors are here to help you, and they truly care about you.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: For my honors thesis research, I walked through every floor of every single ASU Tempe building to document any inaccessible features. Through this process, I discovered so many cute nooks and places of ASU's Tempe campus that no one goes to or knows about! My absolute favorite spot to go is this strange little building on Mill and Curry Street: the ASU Community Services Building. It has a big, grassy lawn and a great view of downtown Tempe. I go there at least once a week to read, get some sun, and study for exams.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was recently accepted to Harvard Law School, but I deferred my acceptance for two years. This means that I will get two gap years after graduating ASU to gain some professional experience before starting law school in September 2022. After ASU graduation, I'll be starting my full-time job as the deputy campaign manager and finance director for Yassamin Ansari's Phoenix City Council campaign. She is a nonincumbent running for an open seat, and it will be a really exciting race. The election is in November, and the run-off is in March 2021! I'll also continue my part-time remote work as a paralegal at The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm in Washington, D.C. and the director of operations for SPINALpedia, a disability nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle the problem of homelessness! We have more vacant homes in the United States than we do people who are experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is not an issue of a total lack of resources; it's an issue on how we allocate those resources and how we approach homelessness as a whole. I would use $40 million dollars to aid the development and subsidization of low-income housing in areas with a high amount of homelessness, and I would also fund the voluntary relocation of people who are experiencing homelessness and are willing to relocate to currently vacant homes. I would put more funding into existing homelessness shelters as to improve their quality and capacity, and I would create support programs for those who have previously experienced homelessness, focusing on one-on-one mentoring and a proliferation of employment, financial planning, family and addiction resources as to prevent a situation of homelessness in the future.

Look out Harvard, cause here comes Mackenzie!

Enrique Martin Palacios

Communications specialist , School of International Letters and Cultures